Finally, I am no longer the only international transit expert who hasn't been to Hong Kong.
Everyone who talks about transit in Hong Kong seems to talk about the MTR subway system. Yes, it's sleek, and clean, and massive in its capacity, and beautiful in many other respects. But as someone who looks to actual network outcomes, I remain struck by its lack of self-connectedness. The difficulty of plotting a logical path between logical pairs of stations, even some major ones, makes the MTR subway quite different from many of its world-class peers. Look again (click pic to enlarge and sharpen)
We stayed at Causeway Bay, on the east-west Island Line at the bottom of the diagram. What if we had wanted to get to Hung Hom, more or less directly north of there across the harbour? This is not a minor station; it's the main access point for the light-blue line that extends out of the city, up to the Mainland Chinese border. It appeared that the answer was the old one: "If that's where you're going, don't start from here." In many major subway systems of the world, you just wouldn't encounter this difficulty traveling between any pair of stations, certainly not in the dense urban core.
I did enjoy the double-decker trams that ply the main east-west trunk across the Island (mostly right on top of the MTR Island Line). They have an exclusive lane and in stopping every 500m or so they clearly complement both the faster subway and some of the buses alongside them — the latter tending to branch off in more complex paths. The trams are certainly stately, almost surreal in their height and narrowness. I can't speak for their efficiency, but they're not stuck in traffic.
They stop at platforms in the middle of the street, some rather awkward in their access. This one is meant to be accessed only from an overhead walkway, but obviously many people jaywalk to follow the natural desire line.
Indeed, for a city so densely pedestrianized, I noticed a number of pedestrian challenges in the infrastructure.
Note that in discussing the trams in particular I am being careful to avoid the fallacy of technology-focused transit tourism. While I enjoyed the trams and folks seemed to be riding them, I don't immediately tell you that these things are so cool that your city should have one. I don't know enough about how these function in the context of the larger Hong Kong network to be able to tell you that, nor do I know enough about your city.
The real muscle of transit in Hong Kong was clearly the buses. Double-deckers, massive in both size and quantity. These, it seems, are what really moves the city beyond the limited range of the MTR subway.
I'm coming to view the double-decker as the logical end-state of bus development in dense urban environments. They use curb space so much more efficiently than their alternative, the articulated bus. The sheer volumes of people I saw being moved on these things was unimaginable on long single-deck buses. There simply wouldn't have been room at the stops.
By the way, I noted bus lanes wherever there was a lane to spare, as in Paris and a number of other world-cities where transit is essential to urban life.
On the downside, I could have wished — as in many cities — that the buses were more organized, and that there were a map showing how at least the frequent ones fit together as a network. Instead, I saw many signs that the buses weren't being presented as a cohesive system, but rather as a pile of overlapping products, as if from different vendors.
In fact, I nearly missed a desired bus because I couldn't find its sign among so many others.
Finally, and most important, I noted a key bit of infrastructure that identifies cities that really value buses as an essential part of the mobility system. Adequate bus facilities right where they're needed. This one is at Wan Chai ferry terminal.
There's a similar one across the harbor at Tsim Sha Tsui, right where ferries converge, and towers step down to the water, and tourists gather every evening to watch the skyline sparkle. In short, these bus terminal facilities are on unimaginably expensive real estate, but they are viewed as essential infrastructure for a network that's essential for the life of the city, just like streets themselves, so they're there. Many American and Australasian cities don't quite have this commitment; there, many still long to treat bus facilities as things that can be shoved out of the way.
Finally, before you attack me for having missed the richness and inner logic of public transit in Hong Kong, or for having noticed only things that connect with my own preoccupations, note that I was there for 48 hours — enough time to be confronted and delighted but not enough to absorb and understand. I look forward to the chance to return to the city for a more thorough exploration.